Practical Track Maintenance

By Kenneth L. Van Auken

Chicago Illinois

Copyright 1916

Railway Educational Press, Inc.



A foreman should have patience and perseverance. He should be a student of human nature, have the ability to recognize the characteristics of different nationalities, and individuals among the same nationality, and to use these characteristics to the best advantage. If, in addition, the foreman has the characteristics of a good salesman — the ability to make friends and make people like and respect him — ^he has an added asset. The foreman should not become too intimate with a gang of men of any nationality ; to do so will destroy discipline.

The Hobo Laborer — Outside of the American or northern European trackmen who used to be available for section work, the American hobo is conceded to be the best all around trackman. Even hobo labor, as a class, has deteriorated in recent years and it is seldom that one finds a real "old-timer" among the many men who are now sent out on railway construction work.

The hobo always demanded considerate treatment from the foreman; and a foreman could come nearer treating such men as equals than he could men of foreign nationalities. It is a much easier and pleasanter job to handle men who not only understand the English language but who understand track work thoroughly. And It IS not an unusual case for the hobo laborers to know more about putting in switches, for instance, than the foreman they are working for, since many of these men follow track and switch construction work exclusively and obtain a wide experience by working on many railways.

The outstanding characteristic of the old-time hobo is his pride — the feeling that no man in the gang can do more or better work than he can. This characteristic can be used to great advantage in organizing the gang, arranging the different groups so that the work of each man will be measured by that of several others in the same group. This not only increases the amount of work done, but it distributes the work of the laborers so that the whole job is more uniform.

The whole secret of handling a gang of hobo laborers is to get them organized right. In other words, if the men are placed at the kind of work to which they are best adapted and at which they have had the most experience, the work of the gang will move along smoothly and uniformly, provided the foreman has had enough experience to command the respect of the men and then handles them considerately.

The great drawback is the fact that hobo laborers cannot be depended upon, especially after having a pay day, and the further fact that the men always have some grievances concerning the board, the work, the boarding boss or some other official, and trump up various excuses for frequently quitting work and drawing their pay. For this reason it is almost impossible to keep a gang permanently employed and many changes are made in the forces each month. This means that there is frequent, costly reorganization of the gang, whereas with most foreigners, after the men are once organized they can be depended to remain for a good deal longer time.

Good board is a very essential requirement for holding a gang of hobo laborers. Many contractors furnish the board for the men and provide good food in plenty, often losing money on the boarding camp, but making it up through the greater amount of labor which they obtain from the men.

When a foreman is organizing a gang, it will do him little good to ask for men who are good spikers, good bolters, etc. It is best for him to assign different men to the kind of work he wants them to do, and if they are not experts they can be changed later. The foreman who asks a man if he can spike is considered to have shown his weakness and probably will be unable to maintain discipline and get fair work out of the gang.

It is the usual thing for the hobos to complain of the board furnished at a railway camp, but it is a notable fact that they have very little to say about the board furnished by contractors who run their own boarding camps. One road master made it a rule not to allow the hobos to make complaints except when they were at the tables ; then he made it a rule to go through the cars at meal time once a week to listen to and investigate complaints. In this way it was easy to check up unsatisfactory conditions; this plan proved to be a benefit to both the hobo and to the camp.

The advantages of using hobo laborers are: they speak English, are familiar with the work, talk less while at work and cause less trouble than foreigners. The disadvantages of this class of labor are the refusal of the men to work at certain kinds of jobs and their roving disposition which makes it impossible to depend on them to be on the work from day to day. Pay day is the hobo’s Waterloo and it is the usual thing to lose a large part of the gang as soon as the men receive their pay checks.

While a foreman must understand hobos and must be experienced in track work to command their respect, the hobos do not expect the foreman to know everything about track work. If they take a liking to a foreman they will suggest quicker and better ways of doing things, ideas which they have gathered from wide experience.

The Italian Laborer — Frequently Italian laborers are looked upon by foremen as being tricky and treacherous — in fact as poor material out of which to make trackmen. Frequently these are not the characteristics of the gang but rather of the leader, the interpreter or whoever it may be, because the laborers see things through his eyes. There are among Italians, as in other nationalities, men who are tricky and looking for every chance to slight the work. On the other hand there are many Italians who make good trackmen ; and if trained rightly some of them become almost as adept with track tools as the hobo laborer. Probably the strongest characteristic of the race is thrift. Italians have a natural tendency to sacrifice everything to the accumulation of wealth, some even going so far as to partially starve themselves in order to save money, with the intention of returning to their native country to spend their declining years. But a good many Italians are becoming Americanized and have adapted standards of living equal to those of American-born laborers. These men make good citizens, provide themselves with all of the comforts and many of the luxuries of life, and give their children a good education. The better men among the Italians are found to be faithful, loyal, steady and sober, honest in paying their debts and appreciative of any kindness shown them.

In starting a green gang of Italians at track work, the foreman must exercise the greatest patience, it being necessary to show one man over and over again just how to handle the different tools. The Italians are very well versed in the use of the shovel, as it is the tool which is used in Italy and one which many of them are used to earning their living with. They experience their greatest difficulty in learning to use the other track tools. After they get used to them, however, they become adept, as they are naturally quick. Some of the best spikers, in fact some of the best track gangs, to be found are Italians. With a green gang it is a pretty difficult job to put in a switch ; and even with a gang which has been well trained and can use the tools correctly, some difficulty is experienced.

Frequently this is due to unfamiliarity with the structure of the switch, however, and not to stupidity or unwillingness. The spikers in a green gang are likely to be found spiking the switch point down solid, trying to gauge the wrong rail, or doing other things equally as ridiculous.

The great objection to Italians is that the new emigrants, or those who expect to return to the old country, are inefficient both physically and mentally, as they do not feed themselves well enough to sustain their strength. Such a gang of green Italians is also inclined to be disloyal to the foreman and to shirk work by pretending not to understand. It is difficult to get small gangs for sections because they are clannish and do not wish to separate.

The advantages of Italians for track laborers are that they can be depended upon to put in full time and if they make up their minds to stay in this country, they can be developed into good trackmen. In fact there are many Italian section foremen now, giving efficient and loyal service, and these have been developed largely without paying any particular attention to their education. It is certain that if a greater attempt was made to interest these men into training for a position as section foreman, that they would be better laborers and better able to become track foremen when vacancies occur. Italians as a rule do not use intoxicating liquors, but are fond of beer. They are seldom incapacitated for work on account of a Sunday or holiday spree, which objection can be urged against other types of foreigners.

Pole and Slav Laborers — The Poles and Slavs are robust and as a race are possibly more inclined to treat their stomachs properly than are the Italians, and are therefore usually able to perform heavy work. They are particularly efficient in large gangs and for handling heavy material such as rails, timbers, etc. They are not inclined to talk freely while at work and will produce a fair day’s work if properly treated. Under a good Polish foreman they make good trackmen. They learn quickly and many of them have become section foremen.

They are law abiding, and good men for emergencies such as for fighting snow, working in the rain, etc. A good foreman can get a lot of work out of them, particularly if he takes pains to explain just why work is done in certain ways ; given a chance to learn, their interest is aroused. The extra gangs are usually quite contented, because they do not have that source of trouble, the gang leader; and they are not clannish. They do not submit easily to driving but may be led to do a good day’s work. They work with double energy if promised a little time off at the end of a job. For this reason it is a good thing to line off or lay out the day’s work and tell them that when done, they may knock off for the day. In this way it is possible to get much work out of them and to shorten up the day considerably.

They are capable of being very thoroughly organized and after a man has been assigned his particular work, he stays at it without much further attention from the foreman. They become adept at track and switch work if pains are taken to instruct them and to explain the reasons for every step in a job. They are not very quarrelsome and are possibly more easily handled than Italians. Where they are located remote from a city, rather than furnish their own board, they prefer to obtain it at the house of a Polish family ; but they will board anywhere that they can obtain good, substantial food.

Austrian Laborers — Austrians resemble Poles to some extent but they are even more robust. Even the slightest built of these laborers is able to stand hard work. It is not an unusual sight to see a medium-sized gang of these men throw a rail clear across a flat car and onto the ground. They will do this just to show how strong they are and a foreman who compliments them and flatters them on their strength can get a great deal of work out of them. They resent "driving" and are adapted to heavy work, handling timbers, etc., and to surfacing rather than to building track and switches. They have a failing for strong alcoholic liquors, sometimes appearing on the job incapacitated for work. They usually board themselves and provide nourishing and strength-giving foods without stint.

Macedonian Laborers — Macedonians make good track laborers because they have peaceful dispositions and are naturally inclined to respect the authority of the foreman. They are rather hard to teach, it being particularly hard for them to become adept in the use of the shovel for tamping or even for excavating. This is because they are not accustomed to using shovels in their native country. They are conscientious and loyal and are, in general, better men to have in isolated places than Italians or Bulgarians, or other nationalities which submit to the leadership of an interpreter. Macedonian men make good assistant foremen. They keep the men in good spirits and yet get a good day’s work out of them. They make good trackmen and are as dependable as American foremen as far as their knowledge goes.

Bulgarian Laborers — Bulgarian laborers resemble the Italians somewhat in that they are usually entirely under the control of an interpreter. They are likely to band together to resist the foreman’s authority ; not openly, but in such a way that it is hard for the foreman to discover the man or men who are holding back the work. Even with such a gang, however, if the foreman keeps at it and presses them constantly with the idea of getting out a good day’s work, they will gradually improve. They are not as loyal and easy to handle as other types of foreigners ; are not so thorough and usually seem to care little about the amount of work done.

In small section gangs they can be handled much easier than in large extra gangs, for the smaller gangs have no interpreter. They like to board themselves and are not inclined to stint the quality and quantity of food. The Bulgarians as a whole, are an undesirable class of men to train for trackmen.

Negro Laborers — A negro has no initiative and is very improvident. If he gets $2.00 ahead, he must stop and draw his pay and spend it. It is best to hire men with families for section work and to allow them a garden on the right of way ; the women cultivate the garden. Some railroads have found it advantageous to enclose the ground assigned to them with woven wire fences, and to provide every possible convenience which will help to keep them permanently at one location.

The negro has the intellect of a child and must be treated accordingly. The foreman must be an absolute despot and allow no arguments, otherwise the gang will cease to respect him. Negroes frequently get into difficulties with officers of the law, and a popular foreman will bail them out and take installments to get his money back. The ability to borrow a dollar is a big inducement and helps the foreman materially in keeping his gang.

Usually it is necessary to maintain the company commissary train which issues food, shoes, clothes, tobacco, etc. This is a very popular feature with the negroes. They do not consider that the amount is to be deducted from their pay but it seems to them as if everything which comes from the commissary car is free.

More work can be obtained from negro section men than from extra gang laborers, but even the section laborer will divide his time between the railway, farming and loafing, so that the total amount of work gotten out of him on the railway is not very great. The extra gang men shift from gang to gang, but stick at railroading. The men flock to the foreman who is popular — his reputation travels over the whole district. The negro must have his day off frequently to spend his money. A pass makes him an important man among his neighbors, so that occasional free transportation is a great inducement for the negro to stay on the job.

The best results are obtained under the stimulus of the active leadership of his white superior, as the negro does not want to be considered deficient physically. If he is kept well fed and housed he is contented. Rations in plenty are a very great incentive for him to remain on the job ; he never thinks of providing for the future.

The negroes do best in small gangs. The men work in unison, the leader singing and the others grunting an accompaniment. When a gang is quiet there is something wrong; they should be kept laughing and singing in order to obtain the best results.

The negro likes big jobs and is not thorough and painstaking in small ones. He has the strength and courage for heavy work. After a gang is organized the men will continue working as placed and are easily supervised, provided the foreman has their respect.

It takes a good foreman and. a good cook to hold a gang of negroes. The foreman must enforce strict discipline, be fair and just, and keep the laborers impressed with the fact that they are negroes. Familiarity with the men will soon destroy the foreman’s control over them. The negro is very susceptible to flattery, is faithful and loyal and becomes attached to the, foreman whom he respects, and his word becomes law. While he has little initiative he is a good imitator.

The loud-talking foreman who shouts his orders but is firm in insisting on obedience is usually the most popular with these men. The straw-boss, or unison man, has a different rhyme for each kind of work, and the men understand from the tune which he sings the kind of work that they are going to do, and this helps eliminate personal injuries. The foreman must understand every bit of the work and be expert in handling this kind of labor, and must always treat the men as a master does his servants, otherwise he cannot. hold their respect. The negro is childlike in obedience to the foreman he fears, and loves and respects him. Furthermore, he will work in summer or winter weather, rain or shine, though sometimes the foreman has to go into the camp and drive him out with a club.

The Mexican Laborer — The Mexicans make good track laborers and give satisfactory results, as is proven by the great demand for them. They are intelligent and versatile, but untutored. The system under which they have been raised dwarfs their sense of responsibility, and although they are obedient they must be told every move to make. They carry out the most exacting details satisfactorily under supervision, but not if left alone. They are peaceable under normal conditions ; even the pay day spree is usually peaceful.

Mexicans are merely grown up children, and after they have been in track work -in the United States , where they see good examples, some of the best amongst them will gradually quit their pay day sprees and become steady citizens.

The "employer must provide for their physical wants, as they are unable to do so themselves. They have no. business honor — they have not been trained to know what it means — and think it no discredit to avoid paying their bills. For this reason the foreman must always give security for them before they can buy anything on credit. This has necessitated a sort of protective commissary which it is not possible to keep entirely free from graft. The Mexican has no sense of provision for the future and uses up everything he makes as he goes along.

They are loyal to their superiors, in general, and if given food and coffee and not taken advantage of, they will work almost any number of consecutive hours for a foreman whom they respect, without driving. The foreman must expect to find them untutored and unlearned, and vast patience must be exercised in giving them detailed explanations of how work should be done. The foreman should know the Mexican language to handle the men right ; they will not tolerate abusive language, but if treated well will be the foreman’s loyal subjects.

It takes them two weeks or more to get fed up after coming from Mexico, after which they are more capable of doing a man’s work. The married men are loyal to their families. They are susceptible to flattery. Frequently when they strike they will leave if the demands they have made are granted, while if they are not granted they are just as likely to return to work. Many times they strike and can’t give reasons for doing so. A good company commissary is a very important thing in holding this class of laborers.

The Hindu Laborer — The Hindu laborers are not strong or robust but they learn easily and quickly. They soon come to understand the English language and are quite reliable even when not under direct supervision. They do as they are told, never find fault and are generally very easy to get along with. As a class they are too tall to use the pick and shovel most effectively. They generally prefer contract work to track work:

They keep their habitations in good sanitary condition, never appear on the work intoxicated nor do they smoke on the work. They have very peaceable natures and do but little talking when working. Their gangs do not contain agitators. They are fatalists and will go into dangerous places where other men refuse to go, and will work long hours when requested to by a foreman they like. They have many fast-days which leave them weak. They are dishonest with one another and consider that stealing is no crime. They seem to have a distaste for track work, but a foreman who gives them instructions carefully can do very well with them.

The Japanese Laborer — The Japanese are ambitious and intelligent, and are easily instructed because their minds are receptive. It is not necessary to repeat instructions as often to this class of labor as with most other foreigners. They are sensitive by nature and are cleanly and sanitary in their habits and habitations. While they are small in stature, they are robust and have great vitality. They make good ballasting gangs, each man being capable of about the same amount of work as the others. They are very thorough with whatever they undertake. They soon master the English language, a great many of them making it a rule to learn three new English words each day.

They are temperate, seldom drinking to excess.

They provide themselves with nourishing food, about one-half of their food being rice, the other half being other cereals and vegetables. The only trouble with them comes through gamblers who are brought in by the interpreters. These men frequently cheat the laborers out of all the money they have left after pay day ; this is usually made possible by the co-operation of the interpreter who tells the men that they must gamble or lose their jobs. When these leaches are in the gang it is almost impossible to get good work out of the men or to keep them contented.

They dislike to work for a foreman of any other nationality than English or Canadian. If they are treated considerately they can be educated quickly, though occasionally a stubborn gang is encountered. A gang of this kind should be discharged because it is almost impossible to ever do anything with them. Most of the Japanese, however, are loyal to a foreman who is considerate of their welfare. The Japanese make good foremen themselves, but have to be educated in tact and discipline. Probably four-fifths of the laborers will make good foremen if they are given a good course of training under a practical man.

The Union Pacific has a Japanese school gang, consisting of men who signify their intention of becoming foremen, and these men take up track work very rapidly and make excellent foremen. They are good scholars and master details quickly, have a sense of duty and very seldom repeat an error. After a Jap becomes a foreman he is capable of handling almost any nationality

Conclusions — The writer has found many who disagree as to the characteristics of different classes of laborers as described in the foregoing. If anyone has taken up the subject he will realize the great difficulty in gathering opinions on such a subject and making them agree. Disagreements will be noted in the opinions of two men on the same railway on adjacent territories, regarding the characteristics of a particular nationality, it being not infrequent to find statements from such men which are directly contrary and conflicting.

This is explainable only by the fact that there is a difference among people of the same nationality and among gangs of the same nationality. Doubtless there are many good gangs of every one of the nationalities considered and poor ones also, so that it is hardly possible that everyone will agree with the opinions expressed herein. An attempt was made, however, to obtain opinions from every possible source on this subject and it is the opinions of the majority which are given.

There is one feature which should not be underestimated in handling a gang of any nationality, and that is that the men should, if possible, be kept in a cheerful state of mind. With almost every gang this will result in increasing the amount and decreasing the irksomeness of the work. Of course there are times when it is necessary to adopt opposite tactics which will put the gang in a bad humor. Sometimes men will work harder if they are mad. If they are treated in this way continually, however, they will gradually become dissatisfied and take advantage of every possible chance to shirk the work.

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